The Fall, the last novel penned by the Algerian- born French writer Albert Camus (1913–60) prior to his winning the 1957 Nobel Prize in literature, was written as a series of monologues delivered by a French expatriate and former lawyer currently living in the Netherlands. While The Fall lacks the action found in Camus’s earlier novels The Stranger (L’étranger) and The Plague (La peste), it employs the same deceptively simple, journalistic prose and precise language found in those earlier works to explore similarly difficult existential questions about the nature of individual freedom, human relationships, power, and honest living.
The novel opens in a squalid bar called Mexico City, located somewhere in Amsterdam’s wretched sailors’ quarter. Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the novel’s sole voice, has left Paris, the City of Light, behind and journeyed downward to Dante’s hell. He approaches a fellow Frenchman under the pretext of assisting his countryman in communicating with the Dutch-speaking proprietor of the bar. Although his is the only voice actually “heard” during the course of the novel, Clamence occasionally responds to queries or comments presumably made by his listener. As a result of these periodic hints, Camus’s reader learns that the unnamed Frenchman to whom Clamence speaks over the course of five days is a moderately educated Christian lawyer who has recently arrived from Paris and who expresses some curiosity about indulging in some of the more hedonistic pursuits available in Amsterdam’s red-light district. Initially taking the form of friendly barroom pleasantries, Clamence’s monologue quickly assumes an air of seriousness and captures the listener’s attention with ambiguously philosophical-sounding statements and phrases. The speaker’s description of his occupation as “judge-penitent” causes the listener to ask for clarification.
Eventually it becomes clear to the reader that Clamence deliberately uses such ambiguous phrasing to elicit questions that will enable him to discuss himself without seeming too egocentric, a trait he seems particularly averse to despite his clear predilection for such self-centered discussion. Using vague language to describe his past, Clamence depicts his younger self as a perpetually smiling and popular man whose exceptional generosity, empathy, and kindness were matched only by his triumphs as a lawyer. An exceedingly happy young man, Clamence excelled in court, in sports, and with women and was, in his own estimation, one of the most widely respected Parisians of his time.
Although Clamence’s earlier monologues seem to display an almost boundless self-satisfaction, a few cracks begin appearing in the speaker’s otherwise saccharine recollections of courtroom munificence and extraordinary kindness to disabled people. Initially, Clamence offhandedly mentions that his hitherto unquestioned happiness suddenly hit a roadblock and that he has since changed into a very different sort of person. As these hints begin peppering Clamence’s monologues with greater frequency, the listener seems to inquire about them enough to enable Clamence to promise to address them in future conversations. As a result, Clamence ensures that he will have a listener for several days.
As the two men continue to meet, either for drinks at Mexico City or for strolls around Amsterdam, he begins what is a highly calculated confession. At one point he recalls peals of laughter he heard one evening in Paris, the source of which he could not identify. The discomfort he felt at that moment coupled with two other seemingly unrelated occurrences prompted him to reevaluate his life. The first instance occurred when Clamence was driving and found himself stuck behind a stalled motorcycle when a red light had turned green. After blowing his horn politely, Clamence recalls, the motorcyclist responded with a vulgarity. When Clamence’s second attempt to ask the man to remove his vehicle from the road in order to allow traffic to pass met with a similarly derisive remark, he exited his automobile with the intent of striking the cyclist. During the ensuing confrontation, someone punched Clamence for seeking to take advantage of the motorcyclist’s unsteady, split-legged position. Stunned, Clamence returned to his car and drove off without retaliation. The second event Clamence recalls occurred during one of his customary late-night strolls through Paris. As he crossed a bridge that evening, he observed a young woman glaring into the Seine. Saying nothing, Clamence passed by the woman and continued walking home. As he walked away, he heard the unmistakable sound of a body hitting the water; he paused, then hastened home, doing nothing about the woman.
Whereas the former instance enabled Clamence to understand that he was not as universally well-regarded or dominant a figure as he had previously believed himself to be, the second instance taught him that his kindnesses were not genuine. In other words, Clamence had acted kindly in order to earn the esteem of others. Had his kindness been genuine, Clamence reasons, he would have done something to help the suicidal woman. These realizations disturbed him to such a degree that he sought solace in romance and alcohol. However, he soon learned that he lied to women in order to gain their affection and that the pursuit of false love was as isolating and unsatisfying as that of superficial charity.
Unable to enjoy his hedonistic pursuits and thoroughly dissatisfied with himself, Clamence fled Paris for Amsterdam in order to avoid the constant sourceless laughter he felt in his native city. Deciding that everyone on earth was guilty of something—including Christ, who, having survived the Slaughter of the Innocents, was guilty of letting others die for him—Clamence came to believe that such guilt enabled everyone to pass judgment on everyone else. A sinner himself, Clamence was thus vulnerable to judgment in the same way as a man guilty of a violent crime. Ultimately, it is this incessant judgment that plagues Clamence, and he creates the occupation of judge-penitent in order to elude the sentence levied upon him: laughter.
As an atheist, Clamence realizes that God cannot punish man; only man can pass judgment and punish man. However, since the man who judges is guilty of something, he will be subject to ridicule—that is, he will be judged a hypocrite if he judges someone else. From these realizations, Clamence devises his solution: He will confess his sins to others so that he will be clear to pass judgment on everyone else. By judging himself, Clamence prevents others from doing so, leaving him simultaneously unable to be judged and fit to pass judgment on others. Thus, Clamence regains the sense of power and superiority he had experienced when he believed himself to be the noblest, kindest man in Paris.
Widely considered an autobiographical novel, The Fall essentially implicates all of humanity. We all judge one another but seek to avoid judgment by any means necessary. Our disdain for Clamence, then, amounts to our disdain for our own hypocritical, selfish natures; his anti-solution to the problem of universal guilt and judgment is a challenge Camus poses to us all to find a real solution to suffering within the human condition. Only then will we be absolved of our human guilt.
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Lottman, Herbert R. Camus: A Biography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday 1979.
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Todd, Oliver. Albert Camus: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1997.